Thomas Spann, longtime coach for the Providence Cobras, said he was surprised to learn of the investigation into the program's founder, Providence City Council Majority Leader Kevin Jackson. On Wednesday, Jackson was charged with embezzling more than $127,000 from the youth track-and-field program and misusing campaign funds.
"Things are going great with the program, and this has nothing to do with the kids, the parents or myself," said Spann, reached by telephone on Wednesday afternoon.
Spann said the team is still holding practices three times a week, as usual.
"We’re just going to continue to move forward and do what we do," said Spann.
This season, the Providence Cobras serve 50-60 students, mostly from middle and elementary schools. Spann said they usually pick up a few high school students after their season ends in the summer.
The program started in 1978, and Spann said he first became involved in 1981.
In announcing the indictment against the organization's founder, Jackson, state police said the Cobras received a significant amount of city funding.
"Mr. Jackson oversaw the finances for the organization and was the sole debit card holder for the Cobras’ account," state police said in a written explanation of the charges. "A full analysis of the Cobras bank records revealed that Mr. Jackson allegedly embezzled approximately $127,153 from the Cobras since 2009 in the form of various cash withdrawals and personal expenses. "
Spann said he was questioned in the course of the investigation, but he did not know where it would lead. He described Jackson as one of his closest friends.
"Kevin is a great human being who has his community and the youth in our neighborhood's interests in hand," said Spann. "If it wasn’t for Kevin there’s a lot of things going on in the city of Providence for youth that wouldn’t be going on."
Practice continued as usual Wednesday night for the Providence Cobras. Just hours after Jackson’s arrest, dozens of school-aged kids were stretching and running on the track at Hope High School on the East Side of Providence. Most parents, dropping their kids off, hadn’t heard about the charges leveled against the co-founder.
Partaja Spann says she’s been associated with the program for years through family and friends. She shares a last name with Coach Thomas Spann.
Spann said Jackson has not been part of the day-to-day operations of the club for some time.
“There’s nothing to do with the Cobras,” said Spann. “Kevin’s a great man, a great community leader; he’s done much for the Mount Hope neighborhood. But he hasn’t been actively involved with the Cobras. So it’s definitely under a different direction, and totally separate, and nothing to do with the situation at hand.”
Partaja had no comment on the charges against Jackson, saying she would wait until more information was released.
An investigation by WPRI's Dan McGowan last year found the Cobras had received $23,000 since 2006 from an obscure in city grant program with little oversight. The organization benefited more from the program than any other youth sports group in the city, according to the report.
A search for nonprofit tax records for the Providence Cobras yielded no results, and the organization is not registered with the Rhode Island Secretary of State's office. A track and field website lists 18 Whiting Street in Providence as the organization's address.
Located on a quiet, residential street near the Mt. Hope neighborhood, the house is a little less than a mile from Hope High School, where the Cobras train. A neighbor identified the house as the home of Cobras Coach Thomas Spann.